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Consumer Reports: Advice for Safe Use of Herbal Remedies

February 17, 2012 7:16 pm

Botanicas are flourishing in many U.S. urban areas, as consumers look to Botanicas as a resource for complementary medicine—mainly herbal remedies—Consumer Reports offers some advice on the safe use of these treatments which are not subject to close government oversight.

"Botanicas are important purveyors of health care and wellness in the Hispanic community because they offer traditional cultural connections that can give emotional and spiritual support when fighting a disease or treating a chronic condition," says Jose Luis Mosquera, M.D., medical adviser to Consumer Reports and a board certified physician trained in integrative-medicine.

Botanicas sell medicinal plants, religious objects and other artifacts for physical and spiritual healing. When it comes to using herbs on a longer term basis to treat more serious chronic conditions, Consumer Reports recommends proceeding with caution.

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has stepped up efforts to develop "good manufacturing practices" to address concerns such as product purity and quality control, none of these recommendations are obligatory. That puts the onus on consumers to be vigilant about the safe use of herbal remedies.

Here are some tips for safe use of herbal remedies:
• Natural does not mean safe. There are natural plants, such as Belladona and some mushrooms that can be poisonous. Some herbs and supplements may cause harm if you are pregnant, nursing, preparing for surgery, or taking prescription medicines.
• When purchasing pills, look for the USP Verified label. Since there is little or no oversight on industry compliance with the FDA's "good manufacturing practices," the consumer of dietary supplements must exert constant vigilance. If you're shopping for supplements manufactured in pill form, look for the small number of herbal products tested by the United States Pharmacopeia that bear the words "USP Verified" on their label. Those have been tested for identity, purity, potency, and dangerous contaminants.
• Don't mix medications and herbs on your own. Herbal remedies can decrease the effectiveness of some prescription drugs while others can have the opposite effect, heightening the action of a prescription drug. For example, garlic can increase the blood thinning effects of anti-coagulant and anti-platelet drugs and might increase the effects of certain diabetes drugs. Before taking herbs, talk to your doctor about the implications of combining them with your prescription medications.
• Seek a trained practitioner. A trained practitioner understands the intricacies of each herb and the fact that not all forms of an herbal medicine produce the same effects. For example, tea made from saw palmetto probably has no health benefits since the active compounds don't dissolve in water. In addition, different parts of the same herb can have different effects. Dandelion leaves may act as a diuretic, but the roots act as a laxative. Remedies made from sassafras root may contain safrole, a noted carcinogen, and even those that say "safrole free" may not be.
• Be wary of private label supplements. Doctors and practitioners who sell their own branded products may have a conflict of interest. The American Medical Association and the American College of Physicians advise that if physicians decide to distribute non-prescription health related products to their patients, they should provide them free of charge or at cost. This removes the temptation of personal profit than can interfere with a physician's objective clinical judgment.
• Consider seeing an integrative physician. Integrative medicine is a holistic method, based on clinical evidence, where patients' traditions and cultural background are taken into consideration. Its practice has gained traction over the years; the report notes that 50 academic health centers belong to the Consortium of Academic Health Centers for Integrative Medicine.

This report was made possible by a grant from the Airborne Cy Pres Fund, which was established through a legal settlement of a national class-action lawsuit regarding deceptive advertising practices.

Source: www.ConsumerReports.org

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Six Questions to Ask When Shopping for Homeowners Insurance

February 17, 2012 7:16 pm

Being an informed consumer means not only reading your homeowners insurance policy closely but also asking experts what constitutes the right type, and amount, of coverage you need for your home, according to the Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.).

"Besides knowing the basics of what a standard homeowners insurance policy covers, consumers should ask a series of questions, and receive satisfactory answers to each of them, before buying a new policy, or renewing an existing one," says Michael Barry, vice president, Media Relations, I.I.I.
A qualified insurance agent or insurance company representative can guide you through your choices.

Here are six basic questions everyone should ask before buying or renewing a homeowners insurance policy:
How much would it cost to rebuild my home in its current location in the event of a total loss? Your homeowners insurance policy should cover the cost of building a new home from scratch. Your insurance agent or insurance company representative will have knowledge of your neighborhood, and familiarity with the construction materials used when your home was originally built and can accurately calculate this cost. In general, homeowners policies cover partial or total damages caused by fire, hurricane, hail, lightning or any other disaster listed in your policy. Flood and earthquake-related losses must be insured separately because both perils are excluded in standard homeowners insurance policies.

How much is the personal property in my home worth
in the event of a total loss? Your homeowners insurance policy should cover the cost of replacing all personal property (furniture, appliances, clothing) should it be stolen or destroyed by fire, hurricane or another insured disaster. Most companies provide personal property coverage equal to about 50 to 70 percent of the amount of insurance you have on the structure of your dwelling. So if you have $100,000 worth of dwelling protection, most insurers would recommend $50,000 to $70,000 worth of personal property coverage. The best way to determine if this recommendation is appropriate for your specific situation is to conduct a home inventory.

How much liability protection do I need? Liability covers you against lawsuits for bodily injury or property damage that you, or your family members, cause to other people. It also pays for damage caused by your pets. The liability portion of your policy pays for both the cost of defending you in court and any court awards—up to the limit of your policy. You are also covered not just in your home, but anywhere in the world. Liability limits generally start at about $100,000. Most insurance agents and company representatives recommend that you purchase at least $300,000 worth of liability protection. If you have significant assets and need more liability protection than is offered under the standard homeowners policy limits, ask your agent about umbrella liability.

What level of additional living expense coverage do I need? The Additional Living Expenses (ALE) provision is found in standard homeowners insurance policies. It pays for the costs of living away from home if you cannot reside there due to damage from an insured disaster. ALE covers hotel bills, meals and other expenses over and above your customary living expenses. ALE coverage differs from company to company. Many policies provide coverage equal to about 20 percent of your dwelling protection. For example, if the structure of your home is insured for $100,000, you would have $20,000 of ALE coverage. Some companies impose a time limitation, such as 12 to 24 months.

Should I buy a separate flood and/or earthquake insurance policy?
There were numerous flooding events and earthquakes in the U.S. in 2011, but relatively few Americans had coverage for either type of natural disaster because these perils are excluded from standard homeowners insurance policies. Check with your insurance agent or insurance company representative to see whether you might need specialized coverage beyond your standard homeowners insurance policy. Flood coverage for homeowners is available from the federal government's National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) and from a few private insurers. Earthquake coverage is usually available in the form of a supplemental policy from your insurance company, or, in California, from the California Earthquake Authority. Fire and water damage due to burst gas and water pipes following an earthquake is covered under standard homeowners policies in most states.

Do I qualify for any discounts? If you have smoke detectors, burglar alarms and/or dead-bolt locks in your home, you can often get a premium rate discount. Sophisticated sprinkler systems and alarms that ring at monitoring stations often reduce your homeowners insurance premium, too. Ask your agent or company representative about discounts available to you. If you are at least 55 years old and retired, for instance, you may qualify for a discount of up to 10 percent at some companies. If you have completely modernized your plumbing or electrical system recently, a few companies may provide a price break.

Source: www.iii.org

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Is Retirement Going Extinct?

February 17, 2012 7:16 pm

Are workers really retiring anymore? A new study shows 57 percent of workers age 60 plus surveyed said they would look for a new job after retiring from their current company, showing that retirement no longer means the end of one's career. The nationwide survey was conducted by Harris Interactive© on behalf of CareerBuilder and PrimeCB.com, CareerBuilder's job site for mature workers and retirees. It included more than 800 U.S. workers age 60 and older and more than 3,000 hiring managers and human resources professionals between November 9 and December 5, 2011.

When asked how soon they think they can retire from their current job, one-in-ten (11 percent) respondents said they don't think they'll ever be able to retire. Other responses included:
• 1-2 years – 26 percent
• 3-4 years – 23 percent
• 5-6 years – 22 percent
• 7-8 years – 7 percent
• 9-10 years – 7 percent
• More than 10 years – 4 percent

While an increasing number of mature workers are putting off retirement, the good news is that more employers are looking to hire more seasoned staff. According to the survey, 43 percent of employers plan to hire workers age 50 plus this year, while 41 percent said they hired workers age 50 plus in 2011. Seventy-five percent of the employers surveyed would consider an application from an overqualified worker who is 50 plus, with 59 percent of those employers saying it's because mature candidates bring a wealth of knowledge to an organization and can mentor others.

"Whether mature workers are motivated by financial concerns or simply enjoy going to work every day, we're seeing more people move away from the traditional definition of retirement and seek 'rehirement,'" says Rosemary Haefner, vice president of Human Resources at CareerBuilder. "At the same time, employers are seeing the value these mature workers can bring to an organization, from their intellectual capital to their mentoring and training capabilities. In a highly competitive job market, mature workers can use these skills to their advantage."

Mature workers can find job-search success by emphasizing the qualities that set them apart from other workers. PrimeCB.com offers these tips:

Leverage your professional and real-world experience – When updating your resume or interviewing for a job, think about your experience in terms of both work-related and life skills. Whether it's your strong leadership skills or your wherewithal to weather a tough economy, play up the strengths that come with having more years under your belt.
Bring value to your company in other ways – If you're looking to stay with your current company beyond retirement, find new ways to contribute to the organization, outside of your day-to-day tasks. Spearhead a mentorship program or offer to train new hires.
Consider part-time or freelance work – For workers who aren't ready to completely stop working, part-time employment may be a good solution. Forty-nine percent of workers age 60 plus said they will most likely work part-time once retired. Check out job boards, talk to staffing firms and tap into your social and professional networks for part-time, freelance or temporary work.

Source: www.careerbuilder.com.

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How to Get New Tax Credit for Hiring Veterans

February 17, 2012 7:16 pm

You may have heard about General Electric's plan to hire 5,000 veterans in the next five years. While the move may be motivated by moral responsibility, the company has a financial incentive, too. There are new tax credits for hiring veterans.

The VOW to Hire Heroes Act, signed into law in November, extended up to $9,600 in tax credits to employers who hire unemployed veterans. The rates are per-employee and apply to qualified veterans who begin work before January 1, 2013.

The law added two categories of veterans to the Work Opportunity Tax Credit. Under the changes, employers may be able to deduct up to the following amounts:
• $2,400 for a veteran that had been unemployed for more than 4 weeks;
• $5,600 for a veteran who had been out of work for more than 6 months; and
• $9,600 for a veteran who had been out of work for more than 6 months and has a service-related disability.

Whether or not a veteran qualifies depends on a variety of factors. This includes when they were last on active duty; whether they receive benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; and how many hours they work. Employers must therefore obtain certification before claiming a tax credit for hiring a veteran.

Because the law is so new, the IRS is continually releasing updated instructions and guidance on the rules. If you think you have an employee who qualifies under the new regulations, talk to a tax attorney or your accountant about how you can get a tax credit for hiring a veteran.

Source: www.findlaw.com

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Word of the Day

February 17, 2012 7:16 pm

Annual percentage rate (APR). Combines the interest rate with other loan costs, such as points and loan fees, into a single figure that shows the true annual cost of borrowing.

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Question of the Day

February 17, 2012 7:16 pm

Q: How do I avoid being ripped off by a less than reputable contractor?

A: According to the Federal Trade Commission, there are several ways to spot less than reputable contractors because these hucksters tend to do the following:

- Only accept cash payments;
- Pressure you for an immediate decision;
- Ask you to pay for the entire job up-front;
- Solicit door-to-door;
- Offer exceptionally long guarantees;
- Just happen to have materials left over from a previous job;
- Ask you to get the required building permits;
- Not list a business number in the local telephone directory;
- Offer you discounts for finding other customers;
- Suggest that you borrow money from a lender the contractor knows, which could make you the target of a home improvement loan scam – a sure way to lose your home.

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Marital Matters: 3 Things You Can't Include in a Prenup

February 16, 2012 7:16 pm

"My husband will perform all dish-washing duties for the duration of our marriage."

Guess what? You probably can't include that in your prenup, as tempting as it is. Prenuptial agreements are versatile. Though, what you can put into your agreement may vary. Prenup laws are mostly state-dependent.

They're also mainly meant to address asset division and a couple's finances. So what can't you put in your prenup agreement?

1. "I waive all child support duties."

No. You do not. More specifically, you can't.
Child support and child custody issues typically cannot be included in prenuptial agreements. This is considered a matter of public policy. After all, the money goes to financially support a minor. Courts usually use a "best interest of the child" standard to determine the amount of support granted.
The same goes for child custody issues and visitation rights.

2. "I will not pay any alimony."

Different jurisdictions treat alimony provisions differently. Some strike them down and explicitly have statutes that bar waiving alimony in the prenup. Others allow the clause. Some states will limit any alimony agreements.

3. "We will spend all our holiday time with my parents."
Provisions that detail personal instead of financial matters may get thrown out. This includes provisions that govern who does what chores, where the couple will spend their holidays, and other issues. Courts often do not want to relegate domestic matters to a contract.

There are other provisions that may be struck down as well. For more information about what you can or can't include in your prenup in your state, consult a family law attorney.

Source: www.findlaw.com

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Top 10 ‘Riskiest’ Online Cities of 2012

February 16, 2012 7:16 pm

You may know about the crime rates in your city—but do you know about the online crime rates? Norton teamed up with independent research firm Sperling's BestPlaces to uncover the nation's top 10 cities that have the highest number of cybercrime risk factors.

The Top 10 Riskiest Online Cities in the U.S. are:
1. Washington, D.C.
2. Seattle, Wash.
3. San Francisco, Calif.
4. Atlanta, Ga.
5. Boston, Mass.
6. Denver, Colo.
7. Minneapolis, Minn.
8. Sacramento, Calif.
9. Raleigh, N.C.
10. Austin, Texas

Cities with the greatest risk factors do not necessarily correlate with the highest infection rates, reflecting the fact that many consumers are taking precautions to keep themselves safe.

"In our examination of the riskiest online cities, we've considered a number of factors that can potentially affect online safety," says Bert Sperling, founder of Sperling's BestPlaces and lead researcher for the analysis. "By looking at data from consumer lifestyle habits as well as cybercrime data provided by Symantec, maker of Norton products, we're able to provide a holistic view of the various factors that put a person at potential risk."

Sperling's BestPlaces determined the per-capita rankings by examining several consumer behaviors—from the prevalence of PCs and smartphones, to ecommerce, social networking and accessing potentially unsecured Wi-Fi hotspots, among others.

As the leading riskiest online city, Washington, D.C., placed exceptionally high in almost all the categories measuring potential risk, and had the second-highest reported usage of smartphones. The nation's capital also ranked high among cybercrime data factors, including attempted malware infections and attempted Web attacks.

The second city on the list, Seattle, which was the riskiest online city in 2010, scored at the top in the majority of the categories surveyed, including email usage and social networking activity. Both Seattle and San Francisco (which ranked third), reported high numbers of Wi-Fi hotspots and hours spent on the Internet.

Residents of Atlanta and Boston, which ranked fourth and fifth respectively, share high rankings among the cybercrime data. In particular, Atlanta recorded the highest per-capita number of spamming IP addresses. Both cities' inhabitants exhibit a tendency toward potentially risky online consumer behavior, such as online financial transactions.

According to the research, Denver and Minneapolis placed high among potentially risky factors within the cybercrime data. Sacramento, the only city that wasn't included on the 2010 top 10 list, ranked above average across all categories, while Raleigh and Austin reported high levels of risky online behavior.
"With the explosion of smartphones, tablets and laptops in recent years, and the rise of apps and social networking sites, our online and offline lives are blending together in ways that we've never before experienced," says Marian Merritt, Norton Internet Safety Advocate. "While there are many positive aspects as a result, this analysis highlights the potentially risky factors we face each time we go online. By taking a few simple precautions now, people can make sure they stay protected against online threats."

Of the 50 U.S. cities examined, Detroit was once again ranked the least risky online city, returning low scores in the number of Wi-Fi hotspots, potentially risky online consumer behavior and PC expenditures. Other low-ranked cities include Tulsa and El Paso, which placed in the 48th and 49th spots, respectively.
"Here at the National White Collar Crime Center, we've long worked to serve law enforcement in the prevention, investigation and prosecution of Internet crime -- a fight that has never been more important as we move into an increasingly connected world," says Greg Donewar, manager of the National White Collar Crime Center. "In fact, over the past year, we've seen a considerable increase in cybercrime attacks, and whether a person lives in the riskiest online city or the safest, consumers everywhere need to be aware of the inherent dangers of online activity."

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Tax Tips: Strange Tax Deductions

February 16, 2012 7:16 pm

Tax season is upon us, and in hopes of saving money, many are making some fairly far reaches. The Minnesota Society of Certified Public Accountants (MNCPA) recently surveyed its CPA members to identify the most creative tax deductions proposed by their clients.

"It's a good bet that many of these deductions would have triggered a letter from the IRS, had a CPA not intervened and encouraged the tax filers to not include them on their tax returns," says MNCPA Chair Sara Portner.

Taxes have gotten more complicated in recent years because of changing tax laws on both a state and national level. According to Portner, some credits and deductions allowed on the federal return must be added back when preparing a state return.

Here is the MNCPA list of strange and unacceptable deductions for 2011:

1. Questionable dependents. One woman wanted to include the months she was pregnant in 2011, even though she relinquished rights upon the child's birth; another taxpayer wanted to claim his elected official because he "pays his salary." Yet another taxpayer wanted to claim a former spouse.

2. Disallowed charitable donations.
The market value of whole blood that the taxpayer donated; a $100,000 deduction for burning down an old cabin; gambling losses; private school tuition; raffle tickets.

3. "Fido" as a business expense. Pets proved popular with taxpayers wanting to deduct everything from pet food to vet bills.

4. Inflated mileage calculations. A handyman proposed to take a $25,000 mileage deduction, even though he had only $10,000 in revenue. He justified it by saying he drove 50,000 business miles in one year.

5. Creative medical expenses. A rental house in Arizona for the taxpayer's health; an in-ground swimming pool without a doctor's order; a spouse's drug habit; breast implants and tummy tucks.
6. Investment or not? An attorney's fees for a divorce were considered an "investment" by the former spouse.

7. Unscrupulous business travel and entertainment deductions. A personal luxury car; three country club memberships; a motor home and the full cost of a wedding.

Questions about what you can and can't deduct on your taxes? Contact a CPA.

Source: www.mncpa.org

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Cloudy with a Chance of File Sharing

February 16, 2012 7:16 pm

Anyone who has even the smallest toe in the technology pool has heard of the cloud, which has been the latest buzz in file sharing and storing. But where did this trend come from, and how did it get so popular?

1. Devices. We now have more gadgets that we want to use to access files. Smartphones, laptops and tablets are all used outside of the home, and a synchronized storing space makes sense.
2. A change in workspace. Now that people have all these high-tech gadgets, they are using them to work outside of the office. This means they will want to access and update files on the go.
3. Speedy networks. Now that networks are faster, and Wi-Fi is available everywhere from your super-market to coffee shop, sharing files is easier and we want them to be accessible.
4. Inexpensive storage. Now that storage is cheaper, cloud-based services make sense to consumers financially.

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